INTERVIEW WITH IRINA RATUSHINSKAYA. Poetry sustained Russian exile in labor camp

Irina Ratushinskaya whiled away the hours in a Soviet women's labor camp scratching out poetry with a matchstick on a bar of soap. She committed the verse to memory, then washed it away. After all, writing poetry was one of the offenses that led to her imprisonment in the first place - especially because some of the poems were about God, freedom, and the consequences of the denial of both.

Through freezing winters, months in isolation cells, and the numbing regimen of prison-camp life, the poetry sustained her. During more than four years in confinement, she wrote - and remembered - some 150 poems.

Yesterday in Washington Secretary of State George Shultz was to be on hand as Irina Ratushinskaya was presented the Religious Freedom Award of the Institute on Religion and Democracy.

Ms. Ratushinskaya, along with her husband, human rights activist Igor Gerashchenko, was allowed to leave the Soviet Union last December after an intense pressure campaign in the West. Now she has begun publishing her poetry in the West.

Her release may have been a result of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost, or openness.

Glasnost marks a period, according to Soviet authorities, when criticism is encouraged, when ``democratization'' is being ``expanded,'' and when literature is freer.

But Ratushinskaya remains deeply skeptical of the extent of the changes in her motherland.

``There are really some changes now taking place within our literature and our culture. But I cannot say these changes are so important as Gorbachev speaks about them,'' she said in an interview.

``What does glasnost mean?'' she asks. ``It means that some official writers are allowed to speak a little bit more. It is important, but what about the other people - our people?''

``There is a long list of forbidden literature in the Soviet Union,'' she continues. ``It forms a big, thick book. KGB [the Soviet secret police] uses it when they conduct searches.''

``It has not become much lighter because a few names have been scratched out.''

Ratushinskaya says she ran into trouble with Soviet authorities because her poetry circulated in Russian samizdat [self-published, or underground] publications, even though not all of her poems dealt with religion and human rights.

But, she says, she could not help but write and share what she has written. ``I cannot live without writing poems.''

``And I cannot refuse to write about [prison] bars, because they exist in our country. ... It is very painful to me, because our people allowed it to happen.''

She says there are three conditions which, if met, would indicate real change in the Soviet Union. One is to release all political prisoners - ``not only the big ones'' - and exonerate them of all convictions.

The second is to open Soviet borders, allowing free visitation and emigration.

The third is to allow ``really free literature....''

``If all people in the Soviet Union could read what they want to read, to publish what they want to publish, that would be real glasnost.''

The couple intends to settle eventually in an American city where her husband, an engineer, can find employment.

Ratushinskaya says she intends to begin writing a prose work about Soviet women's labor camps. ``It seems to me,'' she says dryly, ``that after four years I have some familiarity with the subject.''

She is asked if she will miss the inspiration of Russia.

``I used to compose my poetry in isolation cells. The only people watching me were KGB. They were not good company. But I could write. It seems to me when I could write under such conditions, I could write here.'' My Lord, what can I say that's not been said? I stand beneath your wind in a burlap hood. Between your breath and pitch-dark plague-dark cloud - Oh Lord, my God! At my interrogation what will I say If forced to speak, to face the country's way - Deaf, mute, in the body's rags, bruised nearly dead - Oh Lord, my God! How will you dare to judge? Which law is true? What will you say when I come, at last burst through - Stand, my shoulder propped against the glass wall - And look at you, And ask nothing at all.

-Irina Ratushinskaya Translated by Pamela White Hadas and Ilya Nykii

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